Take a late afternoon drive into Oregon’s high desert sagebrush country; pull over in a safe place along the highway; roll down your window and smell the sagebrush (Big Sage “Artemisia tridentata”). For thousands of years, Native Americans harvested, dried and tied desert sagebrush into bundles called smudges. When lit and allowed to smolder, legend tells us that the smoke from the smudge fills the room with healing, cleansing properties. Since many people still practice this ritual today, and there is a demand, Martha Ahern leads groups of 17 to 21 year-old Madras OR special needs students into the desert and teaches them the best way to harvest and bundle it.
“I’ve been leading these forays into the desert for many years of teaching,” Ahern said. “The goal is teaching life skills and, since many of these students are Native American themselves, making sage smudges is a favorite. They make them for personal use, for their friends and family and to sell them at the Christmas Bazaar.
“The beauty of learning how to make smudges, is that you can make them what ever size you need to fit your needs. This year, one student made a very large one for her grandfather to use in his sweat lodge and then made four smaller ones for the other members of her family. They can take home as many as they want.”
Harvesting sagebrush is but one of the many ways Alhern serves special needs students.
She, the daughter of military parents, has traveled all around the country, but she has had a love for the high desert since she was a child. She particularly loved the Southwest – Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. However, what brought her back to Oregon’s High Desert as an adult, were the great memories of the year she spent there as a child.
“I’ve always loved the land and Special Ed has been my passion since high school when I began tutoring at risk students that VISTA students (Volunteers in Service to America) would identify for us in the inner-city neighborhoods of Oklahoma City,” Ahern said. “In Madras, at the MHS Transition Center, these kids can learn about many life skills. We’ve made bird houses out of old barn boards, helped ranchers coral their wayward cattle, cleared fence lines, restored natural habitat, made Jefferson County Christmas quilts and worked in non profit resale shops. We gather rose hips and always have a pot of rose hip tea brewing in the classroom while the students learn about health, nutrition, cooking and other job skills, reading, writing and math. They usually stay with us about three years.”
When Martha Ahern,with her teaching partners Dan Peterson and Kim Urbach,and her student crew, turn up in the school bus (she became a certified bus driver so she could drive the bus herself), the people they are going out to work with understand they are going to get good help.
“These kids work for anybody as long as it teaching them a life skill and it’s safe,” Ahern said. “ Some of the students are more severely involved in their challenges and some are pretty independent, which means we have to be pretty creative with work crew projects. We’ve worked with senior centers, museums, watershed councils, community gardens, etc. and this year, we hope to take some of the money they are earning as a group to take a camping trip to the coast.
“Whatever the work is, the students get quality time with me, my teaching partners, each other and with members in the community. They learn to how to stay focused, how follow directions, complete tasks and maybe, the best of all, they learn how to laugh. Whether it’s pitching bags of sagebrush into the back or the bus, or teasing each other while picking berries or picking up rocks, it is rehabilitating to giggle and laugh.”
And, in the students at the Transition Center own words:
“We learn we can work.
I’m learning about driving and reading.
I enjoy making brownies.
I’ve learned I can have fun with adults (torture them … Ha!)
I’ve learned I’ve got people here that feel
like family and friends.
I get teased (by the girls and I like it)
We get to bother the teachers.
We work in a group.
It feels like home.
I’m learning how to get my points by learning to control my behavior.
I’m learning about working things out.
We work as a team.[It’s] a good day for people to learn to read.
I like to tease and have fun with Grandma Martha, Grandpa Dan and Mom Kim.
I learn how to control my temper.
I feel like school is home…safe to trust people…how to talk to people.
I like being here.
My class works as a team.
I learn how to work with everyone.
The school is a fun place to be with Kim, Dan everyone.
I learn how to be respectful… Oh Yah!
We are given space to be ourselves.
I’ve learned how to step out of my comfort zone.
I like the teasing I can do to everyone.
I’m learning about working things out.
I’m learning about writing.
I’m learning about getting my point across and still controlling my behavior.
We have learned about nature and gardening.
We get to swim.
The Center makes me feel happy!
We learn about nutrition and cooking.
We learn about using all kinds of stuff in decorating and making things.
We learn about wild crafting and gathering in nature.
We learn about working things out.
Tease … have fun… We have space to be ourselves.
We deal with hyper people here. Teachers understand hyper.
I’ve learned “I can do this!!!! ( not really…. Sometimes … I ‘m learning.)”